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1850-1865: We are a house divided, a nation torn by bloody civil war

Can the southern states secede from the Union?


In the 1850s the conflict over the extension of slavery in the western territories escalated into a debate about the nature of the American union and whether states had the right under the Constitution to secede.


LINDA: The United States is just that - a union of states, sovereign states. We each entered the union as sovereign states and as sovereign states we can secede from it.

JOHN: Every state surrendered the right to leave the Union when it joined the Union in the first place. The Constitution was written in the name of the people of the United States. One people - one nation. Not a group of states thinking and acting like independent countries. That idea went out with the Articles of Confederation.

LINDA: Still, each state has the right to make its own laws for what goes on inside its own borders. The laws of your states up North are no better than our state laws down South, in the eyes of the Constitution.

JOHN: When it comes to slavery, you're wrong. Your slave system violates the very principles that made us a nation in the first place.

LINDA: Now you may not like slavery, but that has nothing to do with the law or the Constitution. Our law says slaves are property - not citizens, and the Supreme Court ruled that there in nothing unconstitutional about that.

JOHN: To its shame…

LINDA: Well, in this Union you say we can't secede from - the people of every state must respect and protect the laws of the others. We Southerners don't get any respect or protection from you in the North. When our slaves run away, you try to hide them or block our right to take them back.

JOHN: Look, most of us in the North believe slavery is evil, and we will do everything we can to stop it from spreading at least in our own states. If you come North to catch a runaway slave, we're going to make you prove that you have the right person. We're going to help her go to court and to try to prove that she's free - you consider that "interference" in your affairs. Well, maybe we can't get rid of slavery in the South, but you would turn us into slave catchers in our own states. We won't do it.

LINDA: You say you only want to limit slavery to where it already exists, but now you've elected President Lincoln who comes right out and says that he wants to put slavery "on the road to extinction."

JOHN: The federal government should have the power - and I would say it has the moral duty - to ban slavery wherever it can.

LINDA: Not when the Supreme Court says it can't. You're so righteous about slavery being wrong, but we have the Constitution on our side. We're breaking no law, but it's obvious that you are not going to leave us alone to live as law-abiding Americans.

JOHN: The Northern States can't just sit by any longer and let slavery destroy the freedom our nation stands for.

LINDA: And the Southern States can't remain in the union when other states are bent on destroying our free way of life. It's suicide.

JOHN: You’ve got it backwards. Remaining a Union is the only way for freedom to survive.

LINDA: Why don't you just take your idea of freedom and go your way, and let me secede and go mine? Maybe that way we'll all survive.

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